Masterfully made and beautifully constructed, ParaNorman is technically speaking, one extraordinary motion picture. It is next to impossible to not be drawn in to the painstakingly vivid and stunning world that the LAIKA Entertainment animators have designed once again for this follow up to their Oscar-nominated Coraline and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride.
As intricate and intense as elements of Coraline turned out to be, ParaNorman is by its very nature equally unsettling, intriguing, and surprisingly funny. Writer and co-director Chris Butler, making his feature-length film debut in those roles, has a pulse on every beat present within his film. His screenplay, while admittedly thin at times, is buoyed by the visual landscape his animators have assembled. The performances Butler draws out of his vocal ensemble, along with his keen sense of timing and almost intuitive delivery of jokes, one-liners, and chills and scares is engagingly manipulative.
With the perhaps obvious caveat that the film may be far too creepy for younger viewers, ParaNorman gives us an immediate connection to 11-year old boy Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has the gift, or curse depending on perspective, of being able to communicate with the dead. When we meet Norman, his family has had about enough of his proclaiming of said gift and Norman is not only an outcast in his own family but also in Blithe Hollow, his small New England-centered hometown. His walks to school are punctuated by incessant “Hellos” and “How are you’s?”, all of which are spoken to people no one around Norman can ever see.
Norman is bullied at his school by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and a friendship is forged with Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), another bullied kid who who is kind to Norman. His sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is stuck in her own self-focused teenage world and his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) have no idea what to do with Norman’s gift. Norman is close to his Grandma (Elaine Stritch), but as you can imagine – Grandma passed away awhile ago.
Blithe Hollow seems stuck in a creepy and ugly past, with references to witches and witch trials permeating every square foot and a dark pall almost always casting over the town’s happenings. Norman is confronted by a strange townie, and Norman’s uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who warns of an impending curse which will unleash havoc upon Blithe Hollow. Norman is concerned but unable to put the messages together and with warnings ignored, a 300-year old witch’s curse unleashes an army of zombies upon the town. Norman becomes the de facto leader of trying to save Blithe Hollow, its residents, and also provide peace and tranquility to a town that may have never seen such things in its entire legacy.
Whether ParaNorman is for kids or not, I cannot make that distinction for you. As I disclose that however, the film is never maliciously cruel or distastefully violent; rather, it just embraces what it wants to be – a light-ish horror film, paying homage to the unrelenting zombie infatuation which now exists in countless film and television projects now every year. Irrespective of age or demographics, Chris Butler’s smart screenplay simply wants to entertain, and by recognizing that viewers of all ages will likely be drawn in to the story they are witnessing, ParaNorman satisfies on so many different levels.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) leads a terrific vocal ensemble and the cast’s enthusiasm, along with the visual accomplishments on display, allow ParaNorman to transcend from just another animated film to a movie experience that speaks for itself. Anna Kendrick plays around a little more freely than we are accustomed to and Tucker Albrizzi is winning as Norman’s vulnerable and yet encouraging sidekick. Another joy comes with Butler’s surprising stabs of humor that he and the cast spike in with the right timbre and tone. There’s so much to be captivated by with ParaNorman that it is easy to miss moments and details; which I undoubtedly did, but will catch on a second or even third viewing.
The overriding issue with ParaNorman centers on the subject matter and as I write my praises, I know people – parents and non-parents – who have little or no interest in the film because it either a) looks too scary; b) seems juvenile; and c) plays with subject matter they have no interest in sitting through. Essentially, ParaNorman does tell a witches-and-ghosts tale with a kid, able to speak to the dead, who must find a way to fend off a menacing zombie attack. So with that elephant in the room acknowledged, this is not an animated version of “The Walking Dead” for example, and in terms of violence, kids experience much, much more problematic content watching YouTube videos, action-driven cartoons and playing video games. Where ParaNorman may startle viewers comes in the imagery and the use of zombies, witches, ghosts, and amplifying for little eyes those things that may go bump in the night. My 6-year old indicated to me, “No Dad…I am not seeing that Norman movie.” And I didn’t push it.
While the story may play simple and one-note at times, ParaNorman excels across the board. Forgetting you are watching an animated film is one of the joys here, while another is recognizing the unbridled creativity which bursts out of every frame. I might argue that no one had a more daunting, rewarding, and ultimately satisfying experience making a film that will be released in 2012 than the 200+ people credited with this project. As grueling and tedious as stop-motion animation is to create, I bet all those folks involved had a tough time letting go of Norman, Blithe Hollow, and every other detail embedded in this incredible film they helped bring to life.
I, for one, cannot wait to celebrate their achievement again. Just not with my 6-year old. Yet.